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Mercyhurst student scores in top 1 percent of Master the Mainframe contest

Thursday, February 26, 2015

When Mercyhurst University computer systems major Juan Quevedo decided at the last minute to enter IBM’s Master the Mainframe contest last year, it was on a whim. Still, he performed well, completing two sections of the three-tier competition. This year, he got serious. He set the bar high, gave himself ample time and set out to go the distance. The result:

Dear Juan,

“…Out of 4,900 registered contestants from over 500 schools across North America, you finished in the top one percent (actually, a fraction of one percent).”

Quevedo beamed when he read the e-mail from IBM and sent it off to Mercyhurst mathematics/computer systems professor Chad Redmond, Ph.D.

“Juan is really a great guy,” Redmond said. “He has an A in every class – obviously one of our best students.”

Quevedo, a 44-year-old native of Madrid, Spain, came to the states when he was 18, a foreign exchange student in the Sherman, N.Y., school district. A relationship brought him back to the U.S. years later and he started his college education at Mercyhurst North East in 2011, graduating with an associate degree in computer systems support. He then transferred to Mercyhurst’s Erie campus, where he has excelled.

Quevedo’s introduction to IBM’s annual mainframe competition came through Erie Insurance, which had collaborated with Mercyhurst to teach a course on mainframes last year. He and seven other Mercyhurst students elected to compete in the contest and, of those, Quevedo and two others completed two of the three tiers.

“We started late and just didn’t have enough time,” said Quevedo, who later learned he had earned a prize of a different sort - an internship in computer systems at Erie Insurance, which he figured was due to his academic performance at Mercyhurst and, at least in part, to his performance in the contest.

Each year, IBM invites college and high school students to gain hands-on experience with mainframes — powerful computers designed to manage high volumes of information that also provide security, data protection and operational efficiency — by challenging them to complete several tasks, including varying degrees of programming. The competition is completed remotely online and can take weeks, if not months.

The three levels include:

  1. Breaking the Ice: An introduction to basic mainframe concepts and a guide to navigating the mainframe user interface.
  2. Practical Experience: Contestants are required to complete more extensive system programming, including system setup, advanced commands and application development tasks all while using multiple operating systems.
  3. Real-World Challenge: This final tier requires extensive work from contestants. Tasks from this stage are taken from real life situations encountered by experienced systems programmers.

This year, Quevedo began the competition when it opened on Oct. 6 and finished Dec. 31.

He completed Parts 1 & 2, earning 100 percent on each, the criteria for advancing to Part 3, which is scored on a point system.

“Part 3 had 28 challenges that increased in difficulty, so when I got to 27, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m almost done,’ but then I discovered that the first 27 challenges accounted for 50 percent of your score and the last challenge accounted for the other 50 percent,” he said, admittedly frustrated at the discovery, but resigned to stick with it.

His perseverance earned him a score in the top 1 percent, his name on IBM’s Part 3 Hall of Fame list, and elicited a few wise words for his fellow computer systems students.

“There is a whole world of opportunity with mainframes and there are going to be a lot of jobs in this area in the next few years,” he said. “The contest is a great way to explore whether mainframes would be interesting to you.”

Meanwhile, Quevedo expects to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in May and hopes to parlay his internship into a full-time job at Erie Insurance.

“I would love to work at Erie Insurance,” he said. “There are a lot of talented, fantastic people there.”